The late film critic, Roger Ebert, once opined that video games were inferior to film and literature, that video games can never be an art. That statement started as kindling before erupting into a firestorm of a debate.
But that was in 2005. These days, public opinion towards the validity of video games being an art form leans mostly on the affirmative. And it is a thriving industry: with a revenue of USD120 billion in 2018 according to SuperData.
Like any other industry, the video gaming world has its share of icons. Luminaries who have pushed the field to what it is today. Hideo Kojima is one such auteur. He first came into prominence with Metal Gear. Released by Konami, the company Kojima was under at the time, Metal Gear was considered the progenitor of the stealth game genre. He would go on to design other games like Metal Gear Solid for PlayStation, Policenauts and Snatcher. Kojima Productions was founded under Konami and in 2005, Kojima would be vice-president of Konami Digital Entertainment.
Then in 2015, after 30 years at Konami, Kojima left. Prior to this, there were rumours of contention when the company listed personnel changes with the removal of Kojima’s name and the erasure of all traces of Kojima Productions branding. There were official statements about the fallout. Konami said the company was restructuring and that Kojima was “taking a long time off from work”. Kojima remained silent on the matter, though it was suspected that it was due to an NDA that he had signed.
On 15 December 2015, Kojima officially left Konami but now he has a new studio, also called Kojima Productions, and it has entered into an agreement with Sony Interactive Entertainment to develop a video game for PlayStation 4.
That game would be Death Stranding.
It is a stupefying open-world game with many new mechanics. You play Sam Porter Bridges (voiced by Norman Reedus), who has to deliver parcels in a world that’s plagued with the arrival of BTs or Beached Things, entities that are the deceased souls who failed to cross over and have spilt over to our world. The game also features other actors like Mads Mikkelsen, Margaret Qualley and Troy Baker, among others. Death Stranding would go on to become the bestselling game in Japan.
As part of the marketing effort for the game, Kojima embarked on a world tour, which had him start in Paris, then London, San Francisco and Osaka before ending in Seoul. Singapore was one of the countries that Kojima landed in. We talked to him before his meet-and-greet with fans.
ESQUIRE: What is the idea behind the world of Death Stranding? Was it easier to create these natural landscapes after an apocalypse?
HIDEO: It’s not easier. I wanted to do something about a futuristic Earth, where civilisation collapses and mankind has to rebuild. Something like a newborn planet. Yeah, that’s the imagery: a world that’s unspoilt and humanity is scattered across its face. I wanted Sam to traverse a planet, with virgin plains, to connect with other inhabitants.
I wanted that comparison to our present state: using state-of-the-art tech to link up via a network.
ESQ: Much like the Internet.
HIDEO: There are many end-of-the-world scenarios that I’ve seen where there are ruins, buildings in disarray and disuse, but I didn’t want to go with that. I wanted something new and beautiful.
ESQ: What was the hardest thing to get right in Death Stranding?
HIDEO: There are so many things. One of which is that many people mistake this game as solely a delivery game; you start from point A and end up at point B. That was the most difficult part: trying to convince people otherwise.
There will always be difficulties when you start something new and novel. Like when I worked on Metal Gear. Everyone thinks there’s a need to have some fighting element, where the gameplay is just shooting at enemies. So when I explained the concept for Metal Gear, about the mechanics of hiding and evading the enemy, the staff says, ‘oh no, that wouldn’t work. That’s not a game.’
All I wanted to do is to create games, not produce. But because I wanted more liberty, more freedom in conceiving my games, I had to become a producer. And in order to become a producer in a big game company, I have to be a member of the board of said big game company.
The same scepticism occurred even on Death Stranding. The staff didn’t understand it at first but after we created the basic system, they started to get it.
ESQ: Do you think Death Stranding is successful in what you wanted to communicate to players?
HIDEO: It was a gamble whether people would understand what I was doing with the game. Y’know, about the idea of building a connection. For example, you can give a thumbs up when you come across a structure that another player has left behind for you to use. My staff wanted to add a thumbs down but I didn’t want to do that.
But I think it was a success and I’m very happy that the system is working.
ESQ: Which came first: the idea of connecting people or the delivery mechanics?
HIDEO: I created everything at once. It’s similar to how I work on all my games. A lot of ideas spill out and after a while, certain themes start to join up during development. Everything happens all at once.
ESQ: Not only did you have to develop Death Stranding, but you also had to start and operate a game company from scratch.
HIDEO: I’ll explain something about my previous company [Konami]. All I wanted to do is to create games, not produce. But because I wanted more liberty, more freedom in conceiving my games, I had to become a producer. And in order to become a producer in a big game company, I have to be a member of the board of said big game company.
For Death Stranding, I wasn’t creating a studio and then thinking about what I wanted to make. It’s more like I wanted to create Death Stranding and this is what I need to do to achieve that. While I was creating Death Stranding, I was also creating Kojima Productions. There wasn’t a moment when I had to dwell too deeply about the decision to form a studio. It just happened at the same time. I was quite lucky.
ESQ: I assume that you have a lot of freedom to do what you do, but is a carte blanche detrimental or beneficial?
HIDEO: I think it’s a good balance. It’s difficult to explain. I can design everything so I’ve freedom there but there’s the studio to think about, right? I needed to hire staff and I have to care for their welfare so I can’t make a big failure.
Unlike a movie director where you can shoot a film and then take a year off because I have these responsibilities of running a studio and a staff to feed, I need to continually create.
ESQ: Now you have a lot more people depending on you.
HIDEO: I’m responsible for the staff’s happiness. There’s that pressure but I’m not doing anything that I don’t want to do. There are no orders from above telling me to do this or do that. The only thing I have to do is provide for my staff. How money is generated, I’ll decide that.
ESQ: Death Stranding deals a lot with the afterlife. What are your beliefs in that regard?
HIDEO: I lost my father when I was 13 and my mom raised me by herself. Two years ago, she passed away. I lost the two most lovable people in the world but I feel that they are still watching me. I’m still connected to them in some way.
It’s like you’re unable to see the BTs but they are around us. I feel that my parents are right next to me.
ESQ: Do your children know what you work as?
HIDEO: Kinda. Not to a huge extent that others know of me.
ESQ: Was there something you wanted to include in Death Stranding but you weren’t able to do so due to time or budget constraints?
HIDEO: There’s always, always something that I wanted to include in every project.
You’re not alone, there are others trying to link up with you, setting up structures to make your navigation easier.
ESQ: One of the themes that the game touches on is the short story by Kōbō Abe about the stick and the rope. What can you tell us about that?
HIDEO: It’s difficult to explain. We came from the oceans and when we started walking upright, our hands become free. There’s where the stick and the rope—the closed fist and the open palm—come in. Our hands, the stick and the rope; to fight off and to welcome… those are the earliest tools, traits of the human race.
How you live with your hands is important. That same concept applies to how one interacts with other people, the people you work with.
ESQ: With regard to your world tour, does it take you away from your work or do you see this as essential?
HIDEO: This world tour is different from what I’ve done before. Death Stranding is about connecting and when players are playing the game, they are trying to connect. You’re not alone, there are others trying to link up with you, setting up structures to make your navigation easier.
When you return to real life after playing the game, I want that feeling of connectedness to stay with you. I want players of Death Stranding to connect with other players in real life; when you talk about it or bond over it. In that sense, it’s important for me, the creator, to connect with people in real life too. I want to be part of that connection as well, thus the world tour.
ESQ: For a guy with about 2.9 million followers on Twitter, this must be a Herculean task to meet everyone.
HIDEO: Well, of course, not everyone. But I can try to meet with as many as I can.
Death Stranding is out now on PS4.